There is perhaps no more corporeal a situation than what is unfolding in Afghanistan- a story of human life and the loss of liberty, of blood and bone and viscera under threat in the real world. And yet even in this moment, the role of technology and digital media and its impact on human rights is impossible to dismiss. Below is a roundup of key themes we’re following at Tech Policy Press:
Fear may be the Taliban’s most effective censorship technology.
On Marketplace, when asked whether the Taliban will seek to “control the internet or the flow of digital information,” sociologist Zeynep Tufecki points out that “for most authoritarians, just scaring people is enough” to produce the desired effect. “You don’t need super duper technology when people are in fear of their lives, and they’ll just erase their phones and not do much anyway, especially since they know it doesn’t even matter if the image gets out.”
Wired’s Chris Stokel-Walker looks at how this phenomenon is playing out, and also raises another concern- that the Taliban is using surveillance technology such as biometric scanners that it came into possession of:
Such fears are well justified. The Taliban has previously shown it’s capable and willing to harness the vast data piles we create every day to try and filter out people it believes are detrimental to its way of life, including official government databases. In 2016, Taliban insurgents killed 12 passengers on a bus they stopped after requiring everyone to scan their fingerprints on a biometric machine that cross-checked a database of security force workers, according to an Afghan army commander. “Most of the passengers were not familiar with the machine but we knew it was a biometric device that could identify security force members from amongst civilians,” the commander told Afghan news website TOLOnews at the time.
The Taliban are also believed to have previously used Facebook data to identify individuals with longstanding relationships with US military or NGOs. “We’ve seen that, and supposedly Facebook is aware of this and trying to tamp down on suspicious views of profiles,” says [Human Rights First CTO Welton] Chang. It’s a similar technique to that deployed by Isis in Iraq, who trawled Facebook for contacts of those deemed to be opponents.
Stokel-Walker’s piece offers a rough and ready primer on best practices to hide or destroy digital evidence. It points to a guide that Human Rights First put together (in English) on how to delete one’s digital history, “an unofficial Arabic translation of which is available here.”
One is left to wonder what it will mean for political and military elites in the fallen Afghani government, some of whom built substantial social media followings. Less than a week ago, France24 reported on a young Afghan general who was building his social media presence, “posing for selfies with young civilians and meeting local shopkeepers.” The Twitter account of the Maiwand 215th Corps, which he commanded, has gone silent.
EID Mubarak ✨— Maiwand 215th Corps (@215Corps) July 19, 2021
People are getting ready for #EID Ul-Adha in Lashkargah, they deserve happy EID days & #WEAreHere to make sure that every Family in South-west have a peaceful EID.#GuardiansOfSouthWest pic.twitter.com/0iMGJypYFP
The Taliban may find Western social media to be a useful set of tools.
Just weeks ago, Agence France-Presse reported that Taliban were running Clubhouse chatrooms, in which “the insurgents laud[ed] their humanitarian values, assuring Afghans they want unity.” The article noted that the Taliban have “adopted an increasingly professional approach to public relations and social media,” which has included, notably, writing for The New York Times. On Bloomberg, the Atlantic Council’s Emerson Brooking explains how the Taliban have used social media “to mobilize support.”
The social media platforms do not have a uniform approach to the Taliban. For its part, Facebook says it will continue to ban Taliban-related content:
“The Taliban is sanctioned as a terrorist organization under US law and we have banned them from our services under our Dangerous Organisation policies. This means we remove accounts maintained by or on behalf of the Taliban and prohibit praise, support, and representation of them,” a Facebook spokesperson told the BBC.
The Independent’s Andrew Griffin reports that Twitter “has not yet said that it will ban the Taliban from its platform,” but the company has said it will enforce its rules. “We will continue to proactively enforce our rules and review content that may violate Twitter Rules, specifically policies against glorification of violence, platform manipulation and spam,” the company said in a statement.
YouTube is always the last of the major platforms to come up with a policy in response to important world events, and The Washington Post’s Cristiano Lima reported it was crickets from the video platform as late as this morning. In a Reuters piece yesterday, YouTube declined to comment on whether it would ban the Taliban, but rather “pointed to the U.S. State Department’s list of FTO’s of which the Taliban is not a member. The U.S. instead classifies the Taliban as a ’Specially Designated Global Terrorist,’ which freezes the U.S. assets of those blacklisted and bars Americans from working with them.”
Today, YouTube issued a clarification that indeed it does ban Taliban accounts:
YouTube said today it bans accounts believed to be owned and operated by the Afghan Taliban, in what a spokesperson said was a long-standing policy (– yesterday Facebook told @Reuters they ban the Taliban but YouTube did not confirm) https://t.co/DMgCq485Ec— Elizabeth Culliford (@eculliford) August 17, 2021
Meanwhile, Forbes writer Abram Brown considers whether Twitter and Facebook will permit the Taliban to control existing Afghan government accounts. Presumably the answer is no.
Expect more immediate reprisal against journalists.
The immediate threat to journalists in Afghanistan is severe, as CNN’s Alexis Benveniste reports:
Afghan journalists, particularly women, are “absolutely petrified,” CNN’s chief international correspondent Clarissa Ward told CNN’s chief media correspondent Brian Stelter on “Reliable Sources” Sunday. “They’ve been doing bold and incredible reporting for many years, and now there’s a very real fear that they might face retaliations for that or that certainly they won’t be able to do their work anymore.”
Columbia Journalism Review’s Jon Allsop pointed out that journalists were being forced to withdraw across the country even before the fall of Kabul. In The New York Times, media columnist Ben Smith points to fears among journalists who worked for media organizations backed by the United States, noting they are “among the most exposed of hundreds of Afghans who have worked with American news organizations since the arrival of U.S. troops in 2001, and media organizations have been scrambling to help local employees evacuate.”
The first question to the Taliban at their press conference in Kabul is taken from a female journalist. @CharlotteBellis of Al Jazeera asks about women’s rights. pic.twitter.com/kBEDpZGGl1— Andrew Potter (@AndrewPotterNZ) August 17, 2021
At Slate, Elliot Hannon says “Afghanistan’s female journalists, in particular, have displayed profound bravery in continuing to report the news during what appears to be the first moments of renewed Taliban rule.” At the Guardian, Kate Banville points out that women in media are doing their best “destroy traces of their identity as they brace for Taliban retribution.”
What will happen to internet access?
The mere presence of the internet is a major difference in the Afghanistan of today versus the one that the Taliban controlled until October 2001. Internet access remains intact for now, reports Ali Latifi. Eileen Guo, then writing for New York magazine, reported in 2018 on how mobile phone networks have provided Afghanistan access to the internet even though broadband is not as widely deployed.
The Taliban will now presumably control entities such as Afghan Telecom, a state owned corporation that provides connections in the region. A major project to connect to China was underway as recently as earlier this year. The Taliban killed an Afghan Telecom official in a bombing in 2019. And, the Taliban has been known to raise money by forcing telecom providers to pay a “protection tax” to avoid destruction of infrastructure.
As the situation unfolds, as will these subjects. Tech Policy Press invites submissions on these matters; see our contributor guidelines for more information.
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & Innovation. He is an associate research scientist and adjunct professor at NYU Tandon School of Engineering. Opinions expressed here are his own.